Thinking About Harry Nilsson

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by Chief, Mar 15, 2011.

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  1. Chief

    Chief Over 9634 Served Thread Starter

    I've just recently been getting into Nilsson. I've known about him for years; probably 25 years at least, because of his Lennon connection. Watching the Nilsson doc made me pay particular attention to Nilsson in his own right. I picked up a bunch of his music and found that he's a real musical oddity. He's a good writer in the Bacharach sense, and he's a good singer like Brian Wilson almost. And except for one occasion (Nilsson Schmilsson) he was out of step with current trends.

    Listening to his first album, I don't quite understand why Lennon liked him so much. He wasn't the kind of musician Lennon seemed to like. He even exhibited exaggerations of McCartney's "music hall" style. I think Lennon liked the darker "Mr. Richard's Favorite Song", but it still doesn't seem like the kind of music he'd like. However, it's not at all surprising that McCartney liked him, and commissioned "The Puppy Song" from him. I watched some of his BBC performances on YouTube, and he almost appears to be channeling McCartney, particularly when he sits at the piano and looks up and down at the camera. He almost looks like a blond McCartney.

    Beatles aside, Nilsson seemed like a Brian Wilson/sensitive, type of musician on the first few albums. Nilsson Schmilsson seems like a commercialization of his style - still the old Nilsson, but widely appealing. After that he seemed to take on the carousing/partying persona. I can't believe the guy who wore that cap was the same guy. The guy in Ringo's "Only You" video doesn't seem much like the "Me And My Arrow" guy.

    The doc sheds some light on this, accentuating the role of his divorce, but the transformation was quite remarkable, even considering the role of a painful divorce. I don't know when the wild stuff started, but it seemed like he lost himself altogether in Lennon's presence. Trying to sing like Lennon, and supposedly even trying to out "shout" him was absurdly self-destructive. Not telling Lennon that his voice was shot because he thought Lennon would leave is such an insecure move. Besides, how could he hide what happened to his voice?

    It seemed like that brief interlude with Lennon not only resulted in the loss of his former vocal prowess, but also turned him into a "Lost Weekend Yoko" to the wider public, someone supposedly leading Lennon around and getting him into trouble. He was "that" guy, the guy with the flip cap throwing the punch outside the Troubadour.

    I don't have a particular point.
  2. rstamberg

    rstamberg Forum Resident

    Riverside, CT
  3. cwitt1980

    cwitt1980 Forum Resident

    Carbondale, IL USA
    He was a much better singer than Wilson IMO and that's saying a lot. Wilson was fine, but I don't hear as many ranges of vocals as Nilsson could do. Perhaps Wilson could hit those, but he had the other Beach Boys to do it on the recordings. Nilsson did it all himself. Even when his voice broke, he could belt out some of the best vocals recorded in the 20th century.
  4. bRETT

    bRETT Forum Resident

    Boston MA
    I think it was Randy Newman who said that every singer-songwriter in the 70s was allowed one hit. Harry did better than most, but he ultimately wasn't that commercial an artist, and his failure to score more hits isn't any more puzzling than, say, Laura Nyro's. The general audience related to him during his "rock" phase, but that wouldn't have lasted anyway. He was at the peak of his powers for "Little Touch of Schmilsson," which still killed his pop career.
  5. markytheM

    markytheM Active Member

    Toledo Ohio USA
    Good thread, Chief! I'm just wild about Harry.

    So screaming with Lennon is what screwed his voice? That's as interesting as it is sad. Never really thought about that.

    That bonus track outtake of him singing an early attempt of "Save The Last Dance For Me" on Pussycats is my favorite thing by him. That's too good for words.
  6. MJH64

    MJH64 Member

    San Francisco, CA
    There really was nobody like Harry back when he first emerged. His vocal range, arrangements, and general musical sensibility set him apart from most others. Of course someone that interesting/unique was likely prone to demons and Harry's demons got the better of him. Watching that recent doc it was hard to imagaine how his career would have played out had he not drugged and drank himself to death: would he have built a gradually solid discography instead of peaking so early with "Nilsson Schmillson"?

    I love his music and often put on his early stuff when I need to be cheered up.
  7. bRETT

    bRETT Forum Resident

    Boston MA
    Not forever though...He sang great on "Knillssohn," which should have been his comeback album.
  8. Petrofsk

    Petrofsk Gort to Get You into My Life! Staff

  9. semidetached

    semidetached Monkees Mixographist

    Bucks County, PA
    I knew little of him until the documentary. Lots of great stuff on those early albums; amazing voice.
  10. Chief

    Chief Over 9634 Served Thread Starter

    I'd be willing to argue that Pussycats is better with Harry's wrecked voice. His strained vocals remind me of Dennis Wilson on Pacific Ocean Blue. I find the story about trying to out-scream Lennon a little outrageous, but it could easily be true. I read it in a couple places and I think it's alluded to in the Nilsson doc. It really IS sad, particularly since Harry's voice was nothing like Lennon's. Lennon could do those throat shredding vocals day and night and not be the worse for it. That's how his voice worked. It was a powerful rock and roll voice. Nilsson's voice was a fragile, beautiful instrument. Harry loved the Beatles, and was surely well acquainted with John's vocals, so I can't help but think that if he was trying to out-"Lennon" Lennon, it was a deliberately destructive act.
  11. hoover537

    hoover537 Well-Known Member

    I'm wild about Harry too!!!

    One thing that didn't help his career IHMO was his lack of interest in touring. The BBC film sessions on the documentary are fantastic! I surely hope that AF will release more Harry Nilsson on vinyl or gold cd.
  12. bRETT

    bRETT Forum Resident

    Boston MA
    The entirety of the two TV specials (one of his hits up to Nilsson Schmilsson, the other all "Touch of Schmilsson in the Night") are out there, and they are two of the finest moments of his career.
  13. Mr X

    Mr X Well-Known Member

    NY, USA
    Harry was a great songwriter and an unparalleled singer. Everyone I know, including my kids, who are in their twenties, loves Harry. I think alcohol took a brutal toll on the man.
  14. The Panda

    The Panda Forum Mutant

    Marple, PA, USA
    You can't abuse your body for that long and expect your voice to take it. I liek Pussycats a lot, but having a good voice would've only made the thing better.
    I'm of the opinion that Harry's abuses caused him to lose his muse as well. After Pussycats, none of the albums were even close, IMO. Yea, they weren't unlistenable trash, but compare them to the Schmilsson duo. The melodies aren't there, the hooks are missing. I have a huge collection of Harry and so much of the stuff that remains uncollected on cd is just second tier. It's like what many people say about Paul (and I'm one)....he had grains of good ideas, but just lost the ability to fashion them into coherent, beautiful (and yes, Harry could write "beautiful" tunes, it seemed effortless at the beguinning) total songs.
    I will always wonder if Touch of.... was not only Harry's attempt to commit commercial suicide, but also a necessity because he didn't think he had enough good songs for another lp.
  15. Chief

    Chief Over 9634 Served Thread Starter

    The more I listen to Nilsson, the more I think the guy is some kind of genius (in the pop/rock sense). His songs take a lot of time to sink in, but once they do I can't believe I didn't get them immediately.

    I don't know enough about Nilsson to say for sure, but he did the Newman album while still on the rise. It seems like he just wanted to do it, and doing an album of standards seemed like the same thing.

    One thing that I noticed about Nilsson Schmilsson is that a couple of the songs are old. I guess it's possible he was starting to run out of ideas around the time. Although I find it hard to believe that the guy who wrote "Remember (Christmas)" was drying up creatively. I wonder if his lifestyle interfered with his creativity.

  16. Whether or not his material was LIKE Lennon's I think had nothing to do with it. I think that Lennon admired the same qualities in Nilsson's music (some of his lyrics are almost nakedly confessional) while applying elements of McCartney's musical asthetic and I think he recognized his music as taking the best elements of both.

    Lennon may have railed against McCartney's "granny" music but I think it had more to do with the fact that it was getting more attention than his more serious music AND at the time he railed against it his music had changed substanially. Ultimately, I think he appreciated the combination of the lyrics and the melodies. Lennon loving wordplay would also appreciate Nilsson's word play.

    I've been listening to Harry since 1972 or 3 and find that his music at least melodically has much in common with the melodic moments of John and Paul even though he came from a different tradition.
  17. Larry L

    Larry L Well-Known Member

    Dallas, Texas
    It's too bad those two were so dangerous together. Harry could do things that John couldn't do, and John could do things that Harry couldn't do. Those guys could have had a very creative partnership, if they didn't get so trashed together. But Harry had that voice that no one had. He was one of the best singers ever.
  18. I quite agree. He balanced out Lennon musically much like McCartney but I think he had a sharper edge like Lennon did as well.
  19. cjc

    cjc Member

    Harry was certainly an underated artist and deserved MORE fame and recognition. I listen to one of his LP's quite frequently... it's music that NEVER grows old.
  20. Stateless

    Stateless New Member

    I was on a Nilsson kick a few months ago. The man was really brilliant in the late 60's & early 70's. I like the Lost Weekend desperation of ***** Cats...well most of it...but imagine if Lennon produced Nilsson in 1970 or something. Now that would have been something.
  21. Chief

    Chief Over 9634 Served Thread Starter

    I really like ***** Cats. It was the first Nilsson album I got, and it was purely because of the Lennon connection. I listened to it the way I listen to Dennis Wilson. Harry's voice had the same strained, emotive quality that Dennis had. I knew Harry was a great singer, but that wasn't what I was listening to at first. Now I have more of an appreciation of the damage he did to his voice. It's so much like Brian Wilson's case, except Nilsson's voice seemed to deepen and mature over the years, then totally break. Brian was still singing like a choirboy (according to those who have heard his 1974 demo of "California Feeling"), then within a year or so, he sounded like Scatman Crothers.

    One thing that was different between Brian and Harry, at their vocal peaks, was that Harry could belt out a powerful rock and roll vocal at a lower register, whereas Brian didn't have a strong "rock" voice. Brian had a powerful and strong voice ("Wouldn't It Be Nice", for example is soaring), but it was a "rock" voice, which Harry was able to do.

    There probably isn't much use in comparing them, but that's what I do.
  22. johnny 99

    johnny 99 Exiled On Main Street

    He was.

    Listen to Disc One of "Personal Best" and that tells it all.

    (I saw the documentary recently as well and really enjoyed it; I was really into Nilsson when I was a kid as I used to take his albums out of the library and I always liked his singles; My Dad loved him too!)
  23. jeffrey walsh

    jeffrey walsh Forum Resident

    Scranton, Pa. USA
  24. kwadguy

    kwadguy Forum Resident

    Cambridge, MA
    I mostly agree, with the exception of Knillssonn...That album represented something of a return to form (albeit with diminished vocal abilities).
  25. The Zodiac

    The Zodiac God's Lonely Man

    :agree: Love Knillsson. Beautiful album. "Perfect Day" is awesome.
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